Kayla Rodriguez Graff, CEO and co-founder of SweetBio

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Kayla Rodriguez Graff co-founded SweetBio in 2015 with her brother Isaac, and now serves as CEO of the biotech startup. She has impressive qualifications, including an MBA from Hult International Business School, a front-end developer certification, and six years as a marketing professional for the Target Corporation.

She recently joined Epicenter’s board. Despite her obvious talent and many successes, Graff struggles with imposter syndrome. “I still feel like I don’t deserve to be on Epicenter’s board,” she says. “But I’m really grateful. A lot of people think it’s so sexy to be an entrepreneur, and yet every day an entrepreneur is struggling. So what I can bring to the board is empathy. I’m living this right now. It’s so critical to have an entrepreneur on the board because it’s easy to get far removed from the daily challenges of fundraising and running a company.”

Despite the difficulties in raising rounds as a young woman of color (“I’ve literally had people say, ‘we only invest in white men with white hair who have had exits.’ I’m not kidding.”), she’s utilized the diversity of her team as a value proposition for investors. “I try to make them see why this is a different opportunity. ‘You’re investing in a woman founder — how many of those do you have in your portfolio?’,” she says. “If people want to invest in what Memphis could look like tomorrow — a diverse workforce — we’re right in front of you.”

Graff seems to almost burst with enthusiasm for Memphis. She cares deeply about those who come after her, including her one-year-old son. “He has Memphis on his birth certificate,” she says. “So I hope he feels encouraged to be part of creating innovative solutions for the problems here. I hope he gets to feel that Memphis is bubbling with innovation, whatever innovation looks like in 18 years. Every morning I tell him be brave, be kind, and have fun.”

Graff is no stranger to bravery. As a 31-year-old woman CEO, she defended her decision to pitch to investors while eight months pregnant. “It should be normal,” she says. She is brave in her defense of employees’ right to health insurance and to wellness in their work-life balance. “I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. It’s a small cost to our company for me to know that my employees are not scared to death if they have to go to the doctor or if their child is sick,” she says. She is bravely taking on the status quo in tech.

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“There are very few women in the C-Suite and on boards. This is my opportunity to take a bold stance as a leader. Someone made a comment that life is really hard for women in the C-Suite because of the demands of travel. If more women were in the C-Suite, it wouldn’t look like that,” she says. “It would be different. It would change. We would find more efficient ways to do things. Just because ‘that’s the way it is’ doesn’t mean it’s right.”

As an Epicenter board member, Graff joins an entrepreneurship movement that challenges the status quo just as she does. “The composition of the Epicenter team being predominantly women is something special,” she says. “You don’t see that in any other city with startup initiatives, and I know because I’ve pitched in all of them. Epicenter is being very intentional. I presented at a conference with 40 presenters and I was the only woman. If you’re not intentional, that’s what will happen.”

SweetBio recently submitted an FDA application for their product in wound care. They kicked off 2019 by relocating their headquarters to the recently completed UMRF Research Park. They will be taking on the challenges of hiring, commercializing, and raising another round of funding in the coming months. “I’m not a wild success story yet,” Graff says. “We haven’t sold our company or made $100 million in revenue, but we’re still alive after three years. And that, in itself, is worth celebrating.”

Kayla Rodriguez Graff is helping forge the path to more compassionate leadership, for other women founders in tech, and for future burgeoning Memphis entrepreneurs of all kinds. She does this by being decidedly different. Instead of building walls around her best practices, she’s quick to share a word of advice. She shows up at ecosystem events and volunteers time on panels for the benefit of the ecosystem. She’s unflinchingly committed to employee wellness. She’s as unquestionably savvy as a CEO as she is generous with kindness. She keeps going despite imposter syndrome, and stays involved to make a difference for those who come after her. “It would be smart to be involved with Epicenter because they have a big name, but that’s not why I do it,” she says. “I do it because I know it will make a massive difference for the companies that come after me. I don’t know if SweetBio will reap all the benefits, but it will change the game for our city, and that’s why I am part of it.”

Jonel Turner